I had been planning on having the summer off and not writing anything here till September, in the hope that the happy progress that was made in the early summer would continue and we would head into the conference season with a sense of purpose and optimism.
And fortunately we Conservatives basically are. There are however some potential bumps gathering in the road ahead which I thought I would break my break for and ponder what needs to be done about them.
Because I’m particularly interested in it, I thought I’d start with the aid budget. Godfrey Bloom, in his interviews last week, made a fantastic rallying cry for UKIP supporters but once again underlined their leadership’s inability to recognise the reality of the world we live in. His argument was, essentially, that we can shut ourselves off from the rest of the world – yet we cannot. We trade, we exchange, we travel and we give and take all around the world. We inhabit a world, not fortress Britain.
The response to his comments has been – whether by accident or design – very much coloured by the Telegraph’s features on the salaries paid to NGO leaders. And then Bill Gates – rather surprisingly, I thought – criticised Google for aiming to offer low-cost wireless internet across Africa, saying, “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”
Responses to Bloom’s comments basically split into three. First, that he was essentially right. Secondly, think of the children. And finally, our aid budget stops immigration to the UK.
I don’t think any of these three responses is enough. We should demand accountability and transparency from all our government departments. When we decide to spend taxpayers’ money, we should think about the value (as well as the cost) of what it does. And we should also think about the short-term and the long-term effects and outcomes. Godfrey Bloom is wrong that we shouldn’t help others. It is not just about the children – it is about what those children do when they become adults (which is why jobs, the private sector, the rule of law and governance are so vital). And it is not just about some sort of fake ‘protection’ of our borders.
There are some very basic principles which our aid and development budget should adhere to. One is that they are different things – which is why there is no contradiction between the Gates Foundation’s immense and extraordinary interventions and the Google project. Another is that there should be an end-point planned in to every project, with specific outcomes mapped and publicised (in order to be accountable) along the way. A third is that taxpayers’ money should not fund ongoing running costs for third parties (whether UK or international); it should fund projects only.
Given the conversations we’ve been hearing recently about the post-2015 process for after the Millennium Development Goals, we might be forgiven for assuming that the problems the MDGs sought to address have been solved. But they have not. Certainly there has been enormous progress, and one huge bonus of that progress is that aid and development agencies have improved their delivery and their accountability. But there is still an enormous amount to be done. Part of that effort is about making sure the poorest nations can sustain their progress – which is, once again, a question as much of governance as of resources – and ensure that the citizens of those nations who are now living past the age of five, in relative health, have jobs in the future.
There’s a strand of thought that globalisation alone (or the private-sector alone which is basically the same thing now) has done more than any aid agency to lift the poorest out of poverty and into meaningful lives. This feels like a very tempting thought. But unfortunately it isn’t true. Globalisation can only work if there is broad agreement about the rules, if there are opportunities and stability, and if everyone has access to manpower, resources and soft power. The very poorest nations in the world simply cannot trade their way out of poverty if their citizens are dying in their millions from preventable diseases, if they are so unstable that no-one can work or build a business and if they cannot save and invest and plan for the future (or especially, incidentally, if the rest of the world closes itself off whether through protectionism, other tariff barriers or simply by refusing to engage at all).
Charity does not end poverty; but nor does isolation. Meaningful use of our aid budget is about both a moral and a national imperative. There is a serious and substantial case to be made on both grounds. But it has to be both – it cannot be either or. It has to be aid with development.